Through its first ten games, Pitt was 8-2 with strong wins over Syracuse twice and a victory over Duke. Praise was coming in for Jeff Capel after he became the first former Duke assistant to take down Mike Krzyzewski. Praise was coming in for Justin Champagnie, who had delivered two 20-point, 20-rebound games and cemented himself as perhaps the best player in the ACC. Praise was coming in for Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, who had become terrific second and third scoring options for the Panthers.
Then, Wake Forest happened.
Down in Winston Salem, Pitt fell to the Demon Deacons 76-75 in what seemed to be just a bump in the road for Pitt. Surely the Panthers would come back against North Carolina and Notre Dame and win at least one of the two matchups, right? Wrong.
Against North Carolina, Pitt was visibly outmanned on the inside. The Tar Heels’ three bigs, averaging more than seven rebounds each, combined for 23 boards against a smaller Pitt team. In that game, Justin Champagnie only shot the ball nine times, finishing with an impressive 23 points, but again, only taking nine shots. Johnson and Toney combined to shoot 5 of 18, a 28% mark, combining for just 15 points. While all of these were bad signs for Pitt, most Pitt fans agreed that you have to give credit where credit is due. North Carolina was the better team, won the game, and most would call it an acceptable loss for Pitt. Losing streak extended to two.
Next came the Irish, and boy was it an ugly one. Notre Dame held Pitt to just 58 points, its second lowest total of the season. The Panthers jacked up 18 threes in the first half, only making four of them. After sticking around for the first ten minutes of the first half, Pitt fell apart on both sides of the ball for the rest of the game. Overall, Pitt shot 31.5% from the field and had just one player score more than ten points. Champagnie was once again that guy for Pitt, and while his scoring totals, effort, and hustle were clearly the best on the team, he shot the ball a whopping 20 times. It was a one-man show, and it did not work in the slightest. Losing streak now at three.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) January 31, 2021
Whether it has been stronger defense that Pitt has faced or simply bad games from the two, Johnson and Toney have certainly not put up the numbers that we got used to them putting up in the first ten games of the year.
Through ten games, Toney had scored at least 12 points in eight games, grabbed at least five rebounds in seven games, and made a 3-pointer in eight. During the three-game skid, he has scored 11, eight, and eight, not making a three in any of the losses.
Johnson has seen a similar decline in numbers during the streak. While his scoring numbers have been pretty volatile throughout the entire season, these last three contests were certainly not his best offensive performances of his career. Against Wake Forest, he had 14 points, eight assists, and five turnovers: a respectable stat-line which included a wild layup in the last stages of the game that kept Pitt in it. In the next two against UNC and ND, Johnson scored just 12 points combined, going 2 for 8 and 2 for 6 from the field in those games, respectively. Against Notre Dame, he once again got into foul trouble, fouling out after only logging 19 minutes.
While Champagnie is having an incredible, ACC Player of the Year-worthy season, this team will continue to struggle to win games if Johnson and Toney cannot produce like they had been early in the season.
Another common denominator behind the three straight conference losses has been poor defense on the perimeter. On the season, Pitt is ranked second in the entire conference in 3-point field goal percentage defense. The Panthers have held opponents to just 30% from beyond the arc, and 42% from the field overall (sixth in ACC).
However, in Pitt’s three-straight losses, the opposition has shot 46%, 52.5%, and 56% from the field, respectively. And while the Tar Heels beat the Panthers on the inside, Wake Forest and Notre Dame killed the Panthers on the outside. The Demon Deacons shot 47% from three including 8 of 10 from Ismael Massoud while Notre Dame shot a stellar 54% from deep.
If Pitt would like to flip the switch and win some more ACC games down the stretch, it will most definitely have to tighten things up defensively, especially on the outside.
Capel’s squad will look to turn things around Wednesday night when it takes on No. 16 Virginia Tech at Petersen Events Center. The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. and be broadcast on AT&T’s Regional Sports Networks.